Psycho-Circus (1966) review

Psycho Circus Circus of Fear Christopher Lee in mask
With a title like Psycho-Circus, not to mention the presence of two Count Draculas (Christopher Lee and Klaus Kinski), fright fans will probably expect this to be some kind of lurid horror-thriller filled with circus acts gone horribly wrong (lion tamers mauled, knife thrower’s assistant stabbed) along the lines of 1960’s Circus of Horrors (stock footage from which appears here). Unfortunately, Psycho-Circus is horror-in-name only; though it features a circus, there is nothing psychotic about it. Based on a story by Edgar Wallace, the film is more of a mystery-crime-melodrama, more accurately represented by its original title, Circus of Fear. Taken on its own terms, the film is a passable time-waster, though just barely.
The plot kicks off with the nicely staged robbery of an armored car in broad daylight, abetted by one of the security guards. The stolen loot is hijacked, however, when one of the robbers is killed while trying to deliver the money to an accomplice at the circus. This sets up two mysteries: (1) Who was supposed to get the money; and (2) Who actually got the money? Unfortunately, the film is concerned with the mechanics of its gimmicky mystery plot that it forgets to ask, let alone answer, the most important question: Why should we care about the answers to Questions 1 and 2?
Psycho-Circus Misleading artwork for the re-titled version of the film.
This is a consequence of a typically fragmented script by producer Harry Alan Towers (writing under his Peter Welbeck pseudonym), which follows different characters in different plot threads, without ever winding them into a tight skein. There’s no central protagonist or point of view, and the interesting bits must fight for attention with scenes that drag the pace to a crawl: the police attempts to solve the crime are interrupted by criminal attempts to track down the loot, which in turn must give way to behind-the-scenes melodrama at the circus. Though the anticipated circus carnage never takes place, eventually suspects and witnesses start showing up with knives in their backs, but that’s so obviously a red herring for the knife-thrower that you almost wonder whom the film thinks it’s fooling.
Credit the scattershot approach to a combination of convoluted mystery plotting and more pragmatic concerns: a British-West-German co-production, Psycho-Circus is proto-Eurotrash cinema, a genre in which the need to satisfy investors from different countries outweighs the needs of the narrative. German money? Get German actor Klaus Kinski in there for a few scenes, whether or not he adds anything to the plot.
One intriguing bit involves Lee’s character, Gregor, the lion-tamer, who goes through most of the film wearing a mask, supposedly to hide scars inflicted by one of the beasts in his act – or is he really a criminal hiding his identity? Is he the man to whom the loot was supposed to be delivered, or did he purloin it to finance his escape, now that a dark secret in his past seems to be catching up to him? There might have been a fascinating film to be made that focused on these aspects; instead, these tiny threads are twisted and knotted with less interesting strands.
Despite star billing, Lee is just one of the ensemble. At least his voice is distinctive enough to register while his face is hidden, and when he is finally unmasked he manages to generate a little pathos for a character who is a bit shady. Leo Genn is decent as the Scotland Yard detective on the case, but Kinski gets little to do except skulk around suspiciously.
Circus_of_Fear_FilmPosterProduction values are okay; direction is competent but unremarkable. The film could have benefited from more robust handling to push it out of the German krime territory and into the giallo genre; a little stylized violence would have gone a long way toward enlivening the drab plotting. The story winds up with one of those scenes in which the detective assembles the suspects to reveal the murderer’s identify. If you’re a fan of that kind of who-dunnit hijinx, it might be worth your while to sit through this one to the end.

Trivia

Though the revelation of Gregor’s face is withheld until late in the British film, the trailer gives it away.
Credits: Produced by Harry Alan Towers. Directed by John Llewellyn Moxey. Screenplay by Harry Alan Towers (as Peter Welbeck) based on Edgar Wallace’s novel The Three Just Men (uncredited). Cast: Christopher Lee, Leo Genn, Anthony Newlands, Heinz Drache, Eddi Arent, Klaus Kinski, Margaret Lee, Suzy Kendall, Skip Martin. 90 minutes.

The House of Exorcism (1975): restrospective review

House of Exorcism Elke Sommer and Robert Alda
In cults circles (especially among fans of Italian horror cinema in general and director Mario Bava in particular), THE HOUSE OF EXORCISM is probably the most (in)famous alternate film version in existence – a complete do-over of Bava’s excellent and ethereal LISA AND THE DEVIL (1973) with added scenes of (you guessed it!), exorcism and all that entails: bile, vomit, and profanity. What may make HOUSE OF EXORCISM unique among alternate versions is that (as its producer Alfredo Leone is fond of pointing out) it actually has a separate copyright date, distinguishing HOUSE OF EXORCISM as a separate film unto itself. The irony here is that, if HOUSE OR EXORCISM holds any interest at all (a position seriously open to debate), that interest lies not on the merits of the film itself but on its relationship to LISA AND THE DEVIL.
The original is an atmospheric, ambitious work, filled with suggestion and ambiguity about a tourist named Lisa (Elke Sommer) who loses her way and ends up in a chateau with a strange family, who seem to recognize her as someone named Helena. Is she a reincarnation of a dead woman, or are these the ghosts of the past? Is Leandro (Telly Savalas) simply a butler, or is he an incarnation of the Devil, tormenting Lisa by making her relive events of her previous life over and over?  In the manner of many such movies, which combine artistic aspirations with genre obligations, it’s not a fully satisfying experience in a conventional sense, and it’s sometime hard to determine whether the questions lingering over the narrative are a part of an intricate puzzle box or simply a matter of sloppy screenwriting. Fortunately, the film bravura visual qualities pull you into its weird world, so that any puzzling plot developments become part of the dreamlike experience.
Apparently this was too much for U.S. distributors, who passed on LISA AND THE DEVIL after it was completed in 1973. Hoping to get some return on his investment, Leone went back and shot more footage (apparently directing the additions himself) featuring Sommer and Robert Alda as a priest. The result was THE HOUSE OF EXORCISM, which was released in Italy in 1975 and in the U.S. in 1976 – a film that mimics THE EXORCIST (1973) only close enough to remind viewers how inferior the ripoff is.
HOUSE OF EXORCISM begins with a much more bombastic opening music cue, beneath a completely revised opening credits sequence, with graphics emphasizing crosses against garish red backgrounds. After that, there is some attempt to simulate the visual style of the original, and the new footage blends relatively seamlessly at first (though sharp-eyed viewers will note that Leandro is shot only from behind to disguise the absence of Savalas). In the added scenes, instead of simply losing her way and hitching a ride that takes her to the chateau, Lisa suffers some kind of fit; taken to a hospital, she exhibits signs of possession, so Father Michael (Alda) performs an exorcism, which more or less lasts the rest of the film, with footage from LISA AND THE DEVIL intercut like flashbacks or dreams.
The possession scenes pilfer THE EXORCIST’s bag of tricks, adding little new and nothing worthwhile. There is some stunt work with a contortionist that’s halfway creepy and some belabored attempts to use adult nudity and innuendo show the evil spirit tormenting the priest with his guilty feelings over an affair from before he took to the cloth; a particularly risible moment occurs when Father Michael’s dead girl friend materializes to seduce him – in a room whose walls are covered in puke (it doesn’t help that the hospital set, where the exorcism takes place, looks more like a toolshed). Like almost every other film that followed in the wake of director William Friedkin’s version of William Peter Blatty’s best-seller, HOUSE OF EXORCISM eschews any attempt at grappling with its subject matter in a realistic way, instead simply serving up a bunch of recycled cliches like so many obligatory genre elements: Lisa contorts, pukes, and levitates on cue because that’s what happens in a film with “exorcism” in the title – but it’s all gratuitous mayhem, with no thematic underpinnings.
There are a few transitional bits to visually justify cross-cutting between the two narrative threads (i.e., as Lisa wanders lost in a scene from the original, the camera zooms in on a broken pocket watch, before cutting to a closeup of someone looking at his wrist watch in the hospital to which Lisa has been taken in the new footage). However, the logical connection between the two threads remains elusive. In one early addition, a repairman, working on a mannequin for Leandro, notes that Lisa looks exactly like Helena, suggesting that Leandro plans to “use” her tonight, instead of Helena – presumably in the drama about to unfold at the chateau. Later in the hospital, the possessed Lisa declares to no one in particular, “You won’t use me in your games tonight!” The implication seems to be that the scenes in the chateau represent events that the spirit of Helena is somehow avoiding by possessing the body of Lisa. Or something like that…
What is mildly interesting is that the film eventually feels some obligation to spell out, however incoherently, what is happening. In between hurling profanity and invective at Father Michael (“Don’t break my balls, priest!”), Helena, speaking through Lisa, offers a sort of running commentary on the events in the chateau, spelling out not only what is happening but also why. In a sense, she becomes the Greek Chorus, explaining the story to the audience.
The completely unexpected result of this is that HOUSE OR EXORCISM emerges feeling less like a ripoff of THE EXORCIST and more like DAUGHTER OF HORROR, the re-release version of DEMENTIA (1955), which added narration to clarify a nightmarish scenario that was originally intended to perplex audiences with its dreamlike surrealism. Is this enough to make HOUSE OF EXORCISM interesting, even if not worthwhile? Not really. The explanation proffered by HOUSE OF EXORCISM makes little sense. Unlike DAUGHTER OF HORROR, whose narration may actually have enhanced the movie, providing answers that did not feel tiresome or trite, HOUSE OF EXORCISM does not emerge as an intriguing alternate version; its exposition simply reminds us that we would have been better off watching LISA AND THE DEVIL and figuring things out for ourselves.
In HOUSE OF EXORCISM, Helena is speaking in the past tense about things she has experienced, but she also insists that these events at the chateau are taking place again tonight, though it is not completely clear how that could be possible without her participation. Are we to assume that Helena and Lisa’s spirit have traded places and that Lisa is now in Helena’s place, trapped in some kind of limbo where the events of the past repeat endlessly? If so, the explanation is unsatisfying – why should Lisa suffer for Helena’s sins? As elusive as the original film was, the implication ultimately was that Lisa and Helena were the same, and the events in the chateau represented her past – perhaps another lifetime – catching up with her.
With this element obliterated, the ending pushes Lisa aside to focus on Father Michael as he travels to the chateau to exorcise the house itself. Why? No particular reason, except perhaps that placing this new character in the setting from the old footage would forge a slightly stronger link between the film’s two narrative threads. This leads to a relatively uneventful climax in which the priest wanders around the building, assaulted by wind and threatened by snakes, while shouting to cast out the devil.An abruptly edited flash of lightening seems to show him going up in a puff of smoke, but by that time viewers are past caring.
HOUSE OF EXORCISM is, top put it bluntly, an abomination. Back in 1975, when there was no other way for  U.S. viewers to see LISA AND THE DEVIL in any form, there may have been some justification for the existence of HOUSE OF EXORCISM; now, however, the film is nothing more than a historical footnote, a curiosity for Bava fans who want to see the their idol’s masterpiece bastardized into one in a long line of EXORCIST ripoffs. As understandable as producer Leone’s intentions were (was it better to leave the film unseen in  a vault or get it on the screen in some form?), HOUSE OF EXORCISM takes Bava’s intriguing original and spoils it with crude vulgarity. If you really want to see a marriage of LISA AND THE DEVIL and THE EXORCIST, rent both of them and watch them back to back.
house_of_exorcism_poster_01THE HOUSE OF EXORCISM (1975). Produced by Alfredo Leone. Directed by Mario Bava and Alfredo Leone (as Mickey Lion). Written by Mario Bava, Alberto Cittini, Alfred Leone, Giorgio Maulini, Romano Migliorini, Roberto natale, Francesca Rusishka. Cast: Telly Savalas, Elke Sommer, Sylva Koscina, Alessio Orano, Gabriele Tinit, Kathy Leone, Eduardo Fajardo, Carmen Silva, Franz Von Treuberg, Espartaco Santoni, Alida Valli, Robert Alda. Rated R. 92 minutes.

SDAFF 2015: THE RETURN OF FANT-ASIA, ZOMBIES AND MORE

16th Annual - SDAFF LogoWe’ve just finished Halloween, gained an extra hour on the proverbial space time continuum and El Nino is going to hit Southern California with inclemency worse than Sharknado 4. What more could possibly make So-Cal the place to be? As nature warns Pacific Coast residents to buy flood insurance, San Diego announces the arrival anon of  the 16th Annual San Diego Asian Film Festival (SDAFF), which will flood the city with 130+ films from 20 Asiatic countries over a 10-day period, November 5-14. Of note, SDAFF is now considered to be the largest showcase of Asian cinema on the West Coast and this year’s festival is featuring some far out fantastical films.
Though Korean American Lee Ann Kim, the Pacific Arts Movement and SDAFF’s founder and executive director, has parlayed more of the SDAFF’s film programming into the hands of artistic director Brian Hu, in this time of more correct eating habits, she’s become somewhat of a cinematic vegetarian. Kim tranquilly analogizes, “My involvement in the festival is that there are so many ingredients in the salad and I’m basically the dressing…once it’s tossed, it tastes fantastic. I connect the dots and make sure that people have the right resources and right direction.”
The Assassin - 1One of this year’s directions is the heralded return of SDAFF’s love affair with fant-Asia films, the only festival this year that will deliver movies wrapped in a glorious array of genres that is sure to rock your soul, craze your brain and increase your blood pressure to 150/freaked out. To me, the ultimate in fant-Asia is cutting edge period piece, martial arts extravaganzas, and what better film is there to begin the fant-Asia aspect than with a movie in the running for an Academy Award for best foreign language picture, Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin (2015). Other times this has happened for kung fu films is with King Hu’s Come Drink With Me (1966), Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Zhang Yimou’s Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004), and Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster (2013). The difference being for Taiwanese auteur director Hou, is that he received the Best Director award at Cannes this year for Assassin, as accolade-giving critics worldwide have averred that it’s not your typical wu xia epic.
With Taiwanese roots and in his fifth year with SDAFF, Chinese American Hu gleefully elaborates, “In the past we’ve tried to show martial arts films that promote different kinds of artistry, like special effects, wire work, use of 3-D and of course fight choreography. So we can see how these filmmakers are thinking when it comes to this genre and how they can do something innovative with it.
The Assassin -2 -yin-niang“Audiences will watch this film because it has such a bad-ass title. Yet it’s a film that’s daring as it almost has no action, almost no dialogue, almost no story, but it has an incredible amount of visual beauty and powerful ways of developing characters through peeking at them. As you watch it, you get a feeling that this is probably what it looked like during the Tang Dynasty and what it was like to spend 10 minutes with someone from that era. Martial arts films are typically wall-to-wall action, but Assassin reminds us that action happens in the context of loneliness, sadness and social pressures that lead you into a dark corner. Hou says that assassins get in there really close, kill, then get out of there and that’s it. No posing. This is what makes this a beautiful film.”
Sounds to me like the fights are what we used to see in old Akira Kurosawa samurai films and in the Shaw Brothers auteur director Chu Yuan’s kung fu classics of the 1970s. If you’ve seen Toshiro Mifune in Kurosawa’s Sanjuro (1962), the big finale duel is one simple sword-slashing strike to his opponent’s heart.
Deadman InfernoYakuza vs. Zombies pretty much samuraizes what to expect with the Xtreme Japanese film Deadman Inferno or as it is called in Japanese, Z Island. Z stands for Zeni, a place where opposing families of yakuzas, promiscuous karate teen girls, a dorky doctor, a reggae-rocking angler and a castaway cop all attempt to Gilligan Island around running zombies…and in a nutshell, zat is zee problem.
Hu shares that it’s been a while since SDAFF has screened this kind of film mainly because the genre is clichéd, extremely misogynistic and they just kept piling up to the point that their novelty wore off. “However,” he joyfully reveals, “Deadman is hilarious and touching, because it’s about a family coming together because of zombies and they’re all forced to stand up for each other. In regard to this genre of films, there’s a lot of funny and random humor in Deadman and it’s also the film you’ve been waiting for. It’s not as ultra violent like past productions but it gives you all the kicks you need.”
TheWhisperingStar_mainWEB-1540x866According to Hu, Asian cinema isn’t always known for sci-fi fantasy film, so what happens is that fantasy now seeps into other genres. The Japanese film Whispering Star is about a delivery-robot who goes all UPS (Unidentified Person in Space) and browns from planet to planet dropping off packages for human clients. Roosting behind her intergalactic console like a delivery pigeon waiting to send messages via tweets, delivery fem-bot fantasizes about the world of humans, so close in parallel dementia, yet so far apart in space and far away in each others memories.
Then there’s the Korean romantic fantasy Beauty Inside that poses the scenario; imagine waking up every morning with a different face and then imagine falling in love with somebody, only to know that their first impression will be the last. It’s Groundhog Day (1993) meets 50 First Dates (2004). The Korean comedic fantasy Wonderful Nightmare spices with Heaven Can Wait (1978) gimchi when a city’s top attorney dies in an accident, but is given a second chance at life if she can trade places with an ordinary mother for one month.
20-USE-COVERWEB-1540x866Hu posits, “Whispering Star is really an art film that uses sci-fi to express it’s own idea of humanity. Beauty Inside is a Korean romantic comedy, which these days are a dime a dozen, but they use a fantasy scenario to liven up the genre. It’s a high concept, geek gimmicky set up and asks the question, if you’re a different face everyday, how can you go on a second date? Yet it’s such an achievement in direction because the director had to orchestrate so many performances as one character and make them seem like one character by so many different actors…man, woman, old and young…and then make us feel that we are watching the same person. It’s an incredible way of having us empathize with a certain perspective of love and how we as the audience spend time with a character that must ask herself, ‘Can I fall in love with someone that has a different face every day.’ To have us empathize with this kind of romantic possibility is so brilliant.”
Love and Peace copyKorea strikes again with a body switching Heaven can Wait (1978) thematic device in Wonderful Nightmare, with a Seoul twist where Gangnam Style is perhaps more popular that Chubby Checker’s The Twist. And speaking of music let’s not forget Japan’s Love and Peace. Hu chimes in, “This film converges on the rock operas of the 1970’s and ’80s…there’s something very sci-fi-ish with David Bowie, and this film evokes all of that with it’s Japanese sensibility of fraudness. Yes, it has talking turtles, cats and all kinds of other things that can talk too. It’s a lot of fun, it’s bonkers, and has great music. Director Sion Sono wrote the songs himself and it’s something he’s wanted to do for decades.”
Finally, three and a half fant-Asia films on the fringe. Directed by Vietnamese American Viet Nguyen, the comedy horror thriller Crush the Skull is about a couple in love that needs some fast cash and thus they break into a house that has no exit, no cell phone reception and no explanation for the torture pit they discover. Hu smilingly shares, “It’s seriously scary, wickedly off-kilter, and the funniest Asian American film in years.”
Atomic-Heart_10small-1500x866Don’t look now, but Iran explodes into the festival with director Ali Ahmadzade’s surreal loose comedy where fantasy and sci-fi seep into the film in a highly unusual way…it’s a blast but not a bomb. Atomic Heart is about two drunk party girls trying to drive home after a big night on the town who fail miserably as laced with Farsi trash talking, they have a zany run-in with a Saddam Hussein look-a-like but a saving run-out with a George Clooney doppleganger. It’s a culture that’s out of our minds and world, but a film that gets into our hearts and soul.
Beware the oleo…wait that’s butter…I mean the olio of the experimental, hybrid documentary of Daniel Hui’s Snakeskin that spreads contemporary and future Singapore like margarine on toast. With a queer eye from a 2066 cult member surviving guy that melds with a Malay cinema actress, the Shaw Brothers studios, and enforcers, and  exiles/ghosts, and activists…oh my, who are all ineptly but affably infantile, Snakeskin may rattle your thoughts and constrict your mind so much that I recommend you take an anti-hissss-tamine to the theater.
SWAP-770x433And finally the Filipino film Swap, which is not so much a fant-Asia film as it is a suspense thriller that is a must see for filmmakers looking for something uniquely edgy with cinematic savvy not often seen in film history. Hu explains, “This is a weird story. As it turns out, in one night I was watching two Filipino films both of which were single take movies. One wasn’t successful but with Swap, something new was  happening here. There’s been single take films but this one is full of flashbacks and dream sequences. You can only imagine how the actors are rapidly changing clothes off screen and getting sets ready on the run. The filmmakers will be at the festival and we all want to know how many takes did it take to get it right. The crazy thing is, Swap is based upon the director’s own history of being a kidnapped baby back in the ’80s.”
Fearless festival leader Kim adds, “How does this experience of being kidnapped as a child manifest it’s way into such a film? You have to say to yourself that these artists, don’t just do it for fun but do it because they have to do it…they have to do it.”
Deadman Inferno-2For information regarding films, dates and times, and how to get to their respective venues please visit http://festival.sdaff.org/2015/. One neat thing that SDAFF has, and it’s something that no other film festival in the world does, is that there will be an interactive booth from Saturday, November 7 through Monday, November 9, where filmgoers can get a free Chi Reading for their health and well being.
Kim’s final words, “Over the years, I’ve noticed that our audiences, like life-changing, inspiring and uplifting stories. Who doesn’t? They do well at the festival and that tells me that we have the right audience because our organization is not only here to entertain and inspire, but to also build a more passionate society, and part of that is to give inspiration, and to expose audiences and open their minds to more new experiences. I’ve been through multiple generations of people here at Pac-arts and I’m grateful for this work, and I believe I’m in the right place at the right time right now. The people that we have here are so special to me and this festival is our love letter to the community.”

CFQ chronicles the living dead!


For the first time ever, Cinefantastique has made a movie: CHRONICLES OF THE LIVING DEAD, co-produced with Mindset Films. As you might guess from the title, the new documentary chronicles the making of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968). New interviews with filmmakers Russ Streiner and John Russo combine with vintage clips of George A. Romero provide a lively look back at the seminal film that unleashed the zombie apocalypse genre on an unsuspecting public.
Even if you think you know everything there is to know about NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, you may be surprised at how much fun there is to be had watching CHRONICLES OF THE DEAD. If you don’t believe us, just check out the two embedded clips.
Russ Streiner discusses filming the Washington footage in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) in this clip from CHRONICLES OF THE LIVING DEAD, co-produced by Mindset Films and Cinefantastique.
CHRONICLES OF THE LIVING DEAD is available in the September Horror Block from Nerd Block. Each monthly horror block contains 4-6 frightening collectibles and a t-shirt – a $60 for a $19.99/month subscription.

Wes Craven dead at 76

Wes Craven, father of Freddy Krueger, has passed away. The writer-director helmed a variety of horror films, thrillers, and some non-genre work during a career that stretched from LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT in 1972 to MY SOUL TO TAKE in 2010. Other titles included THE HILLS HAVE EYES, THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS, SHOCKER. After a career ebb, he bounced back in the late 1990s with the SCREAM trilogy.
His most seminal work, however, was A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984), which unleashed dream-demon Freddy Krueger on the world. The film launched a franchise that led to multiple sequels, a short-lived TV series, and a 2010 remake. Craven was at times critical of the direction in which the character was taken in later films; after the original film, he was directly involved only with A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS and WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE, a self-referential film, in which Craven appeared as himself, while his creation seemed hell-bent upon penetrating the “real” world.
Craven died of a brain cancer. He was 76. Variety has details.

Tokyo Gore Police (2008) – review

If you are expecting an exciting, tongue-in-cheek thrill ride with gallons of ridiculous gore, you are one-fourth right.
TokyoGorePolice_poster_01If you sit down to watch a film called Tokyo Gore Police, you certainly have no one to blame but yourself, right? It’s not as if you had no idea what you were in for. Or maybe you didn’t. You could have been expecting an exciting, tongue-in-cheek thrill ride with gallons of ridiculous gore. In which case, you were one-fourth right. Although blood flows freely, excitement and thrills are in short supply; as for the tongue, it’s been ripped from the cheek and tossed out the window.
The story, such as it is, follows Ruka (Eihi Shiina), who is your standard-issue tough but troubled ass-kicking hot chick. She’s part of an elite police unit that handles a new kind of criminal, who sprout weaponry from wounds inflicted upon them. (And you thought Hercules had it bad with the Hydra!)
Before delving any deeper into Tokyo Gore Police, I should pause to acknowledge that, if you are interested in seeing it, you probably don’t care about any plot deficiencies I may be about to enumerate. Which is fine by me: nonsense cinema can be fun.
However, there is a more fundamental problem, which supersedes narrative coherence: there’s really nothing Ruka does which comes close to justifying the high regard in which she is held by the other characters (and, indeed, by the film itself). It’s not as if there is anything about her skill with a sword to convince us that she could succeed where an armed squad of other police would fail. Sure, she kills all the mutant criminals, but that happens pretty much because the script says so.
The story follows Ruka’s quest to find the “Key Man,” who created the virus that turns criminals into “engineers” capable of transforming. He turns out to be one of those villains with a righteous cause, regardless of his methods. And considering the brutality of Ruka’s comrades (who are ruthlessly cracking down on everyone suspected of being an engineer), you can hardly blame the Key Man for hating the police (though he has a more specific reason as well).
His motivation ties in with Ruka’s decision to join the police, which stems from a childhood memory of seeing her father (also a policeman) murdered. Since then, she has been raised by her father’s colleague, who is also now the police chief and, hence, Ruka’s boss. Anyone want to take early bets on whether the chief turns out to have been involved in dad’s murder? No? Good, I figured you were too smart to fall for sucker action like that.
Eventually, Ruka gets infected, which turns out to be a good thing, because she can mutate a cool new arm and eye and turn the tables on her former colleagues after finding out that her dad was murdered precisely because he resisted police force privatization – though, to be frank, it’s not as if the film generates any real rooting interest in this regard.
Too a large extent, none of this matters, because the appeal of Tokyo Gore Police is based upon the weird mutations it can visualize for Ruka to slice to pieces. Strangely, as excessive as it it, Tokyo Gore Police falls short in this area, at least by its own standards, with certain effects – or at least types of effects – repeated. Make no mistakes: there is an abattoir full of mutant, mangled flesh on view, but after awhile it seems as if the writers ran of out ways for Ruka to dispatch the engineers.
The one small saving grace is that the film mimics the satirical tone of the original Robocop. Set in a vaguely fascist future, Tokyo Gore Police is sprinkled with TV adverts and public service announcements that are often morbidly funny (topics range from suicide to trendy wrist-cutting self-inflicted by happy teenage schoolgirls). Unfortunately, these scenes add up to approximately three minutes of the overlong 110-minute running time; you’re better of watching them on YouTube.
Center stage in all this is the “Tokyo Gore Police” (actually identified as the “Tokyo Police Corporation” in the film), whose ads show them mercilessly gunning down miscreants while jovially announcing to the camera, “We will protect you!” This is followed by a voice over extolling the virtues of privatizing the police force. The satirical emulation of mindless propaganda is as cutting as anything in Starship Troopers.
Sadly, Tokyo Gore Police has neither the resources nor the inclination to infuse this satire into the main body of the film, which thus fails to live up to its own best idea. Apparently, privatization hasn’t been particularly profitable, because Ruka’s “elite” police unit operates out of what looks like a dingy warehouse, with so little equipment and staff that, when it finally falls under attack late in the proceedings, you wonder why no criminals realized sooner that they could just walk in and start shooting. (If one were very generous, I suppose one could theorize that the intent was to show the discrepancy between the propaganda and the reality, but on screen it just looks as if the producers could not afford a set and some extras.)
tokyo-gore-police-gimpInstead, all creativity goes into the engineers, who are truly a ghastly and disturbing menagerie, their mutated bodies, with suggestions of S&M and deviancy, like something out of a joint nightmare by David Lynch and Clive Barker. Seen as still photos, these images may intrigue the curious and the unwary, but ultimately the film has little idea what to do with these creatures besides set them up to be knocked down in a repetitious series of gore-infused fights scenes. Ultimately, Tokyo Gore Police would work better as a coffee table photo album, nestled somewhere below Giger’s Necronomicon, The Alien Life of Wayne Barlowe, and The Art of Olivia, all of which manage to be not only bizarre but also fascinating – a feat that eludes Tokyo Gore Police.
TOKYO GORE POLICE (Tôkyô zankoku keisatsu, 2008) Directed by Hoshihiro Nishimura. Written by Kengo Kaji, Maki Mizui, Yoshihiro Nishimura (English translation by J.J. Vallejo). Cast: Eihi Shiina, Itsuji Itao, Yukihide Benny, Jiji Bu, Ikuko Sawada. Unrated. 110 mins.

Psycho Gothic Lolita (2010) – review

Blood, watery though it may be, is nonetheless much, much thicker than plot.

Psycho Gothic LolitaPSYCHO GOTHIC LOLITA is one of those films that must be seen to be believed – which is not the same as saying it “must” or even “should” be seen. Essentially, this is a vaguely futuristic, Japanese rip-off of KILL BILL, with a nod toward a Tokyo fashion trend that you can probably surmise from the title, filled with sound and fury but signifying very little. It’s not all bad, but the good parts can – and pretty much do – fit into the trailer.
After a briefly glimpsed exterior suggesting we’re in one of those gloomy movie worlds that might be the future or just an alternate reality, PSYCHO GOTHIC LOLITA gets immediately down to business, with its title character graphically killing a bunch of people in a nightclub before facing off with the female owner in a vengeful duel to the death.
Just in case you’ve never seen a Quentin Tarantino movie, I will not pause to explain that this sequence is essentially a reprise of the Crazy 88 episode from KILL BILL, VOLUME 1. I will also pause to explain that, individually and/or collaboratively, director Go Ohara and writer Hisakatsu Kuroki are no Quentin Tarantino. Taking cues only from the over-the-top violence, they do not bother to replicate KILL BILL’S time structure; instead, after the initial carnage, they settle into the monotonous rhythm of a bad porno movie, in which every scene of spewing bodily fluids is alternated with a dull dialogue scene that “advances” the “plot.”
Which amounts to this: Yuki (Rina Akiyama” and her father Jiro (Yurei Yanagi) are seeking revenge for the murder of Yuki’s mother. They talk about this during the plot scenes, without every really saying anything important. There is no trail of clues they seem to be following, nor any particular long-term strategy; they’re just plugging away at this one killing at a time. One presumes they are working their way up the pecking order of villains until they get to numero uno, but it scarcely matters.
Consequently, after the first ten minutes, you’ve pretty much seen the movie; everything else is repetition, except insofar as the fight scenes can upgrade the insanity with ever more outrageous invention, some of which are, admittedly, worth a chuckle (such as an umbrella that shoots like a rifle).
The gore effects – the real star of the show – are, of course, way – way – way beyond belief, which is good, because the watery read geysers are too fake to induce nausea, allowing us to laugh as Yuki slices and dices her way through her various targets.
There is a tiny break in the monotony when one of Yuki’s victims is being attacked by some thugs for unexplained reasons: Yuki must first kill the attackers before killing her victim. I guess the irony of her “rescuing” someone only to kill him is supposed to be amusing, but the effect would have been more effective if this had been the opening scene, before we knew what to expect from her.
The movie picks up a bit when Yuki confronts another young, hot female warrior, whose weapon serves double-duty as a cell phone, allowing her to chat with her boyfriend during the no-holds-barred death duel. It’s not much, but when you’re in a desert, any drop of water feels like an oasis.
In the last reel we get a “development” that is no doubt intended to suggest that there really is a “plot” to be developed: we finally learn the motivation of the murderers who killed Yuki’s mother. It has something to do with mom being  a demon or something, whose energy of power the murders wanted (don’t quote me on this – the exposition was so perfunctory that I couldn’t bring myself to commit the details to memory).
This leads to the big finish, in which Jiro is kidnapped and put on a guillotine, forcing Yuki into a situation in which she figurative fights with one hand tied behind her back – or in this case, one hand holding a rope to prevent the blade from dropping on her father’s neck.
That this sounds suspenseful is a testament to my poor writing skills, which if they were up to par would clarify that the absurdity of the sequences utterly squelches any rooting interest. As Yuki battles back and forth, advancing and retreating, the blade goes up and down so many times that when it finally does fall, the inevitably has been forecast for what seems like hours, and the only emotional response is relief that an overextended sequence has finally come to an end. (And no, this does not count as a spoiler, because even without reading this, you would have seen what was coming long before it happened.)
Anyway, Yuki kills the bad guys, but in the way of Japanese films, we’re left feeling that maybe that’s not a good thing, because there was that demonic aspect to her mother, which – who knows? – might be hereditary or something. And anyway, Yuki’s an orphan now, and it’s not as if her mission in life has really helped her develop the skills to make friends, so she’s rather a lonely soul. But at least she still looks good in that Gothic Lolita garb, so what the hell, right?

Yup, it's the future all right.
Yup, it's the future all right.

The denoument provides another glimpse of a gloomy exterior, which reminds us that PSYCHO GOTHIC LOLITA is supposed to be something other than mundane in its setting, even though much of it looks as if it was shot on locations available to any student filmmaker (gymnasiums, warehouses, empty roads), often with available sunlight. At least the interiors occasionally show some stylization, with Bavaesque colors proudly beamed across the screen quite regardless of realistic light sources.
PSYCHO GOTHIC LOLITA is apparently part of a a Japanese splatter sub-genre that includes such titles as TOKYO GORE POLICE. The unabashed exploitation zeal of these films – in which blood, watery though it may be, is nonetheless much, much thicker than plot – has a certain charm – but not nearly enough to sustain a feature. We’d really all be much better off if the fight scenes from these films were repurposed as three-minute YouTube videos.
PSYCHO GOTHIC LOLITA (U.S home video title; a.k.a., GOSU RORI SHOKEININ [“Gothic & Lolita Psycho”], 2010). Directed by Go Ohara. Written by Hisakatsu Kuroki. Cast: Rina Akiyama, Ruito Aoyagi, Minami Tsuikui, Misaki Momose, Asami, Yukihide Benny, Jonny Caines. 88 mins.

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation – review

Mission Impossible Rogue Nation Cruise on motorcycle posterI don’t know whether you know this or not, but Tom Cruise is the most awesome guy on the planet. Not having met Cruise personally, I know this only because that’s what the plots of all his movies are about. This plot comes in two variations. The first one is straight-forward: Tom Cruise is totally awesome! The second variation is a little less direct: People don’t appreciate how awesome Tom Cruise is! (Think of Jerry Maguire, in which his girlfriend dumps him and he loses his job, just to prove that even though he’s totally awesome, we should still sympathize with him because the world treats him so unfairly.) The interesting thing about Cruise’s latest effort, insofar as there is anything interesting about Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, is that it conflates these two strains into a single if somewhat uncomfortable hybrid.
In Phase One of Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, Cruise plays the super-awesome Ethan Hunt once again, who hangs off airplanes when he’s not out-fighting, out-running, and out-maneuvering everyone else in the film. In Phase Two of Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, the CIA (in the person of Alan Hunley, played by Alec Baldwin) wants to kill Hunt because, in a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black, Hunley doesn’t  like the Impossible Mission Force’s carte blanche to engage in unsupervised covert ops. Consequently, while Hunt is busy trying to save the world yet again, his own ungrateful country is trying to terminate him with extreme prejudice.
It’s really not fair for such an awesome dude to be treated this way, but the plot plays well for viewers who think that America should kick-ass on the rest of the world, and that any sort of restraint is the result of scheming forces that want to undermine the good guys.
Unfortunately, this amalgam, instead of being more than the sum of its parts, turns out to be somewhat less, because the two phases, like musical notes out of phase with each other, tend to cancel out rather than combine. The filmmakers can’t spend half the movie showing us how awesome Cruise is and then expect the audience to worry that the CIA might actually catch and execute him. Likewise, when the filmmakers spend the other half of the movie showing Cruise easily evading the entire CIA, they can’t expect us to have any doubts that he will have any trouble defeating the villain du jour.
Which is rather unfortunate, because Phase One of the film is supposedly built around the concept that Hunt may have finally met his match, which would have been interesting if we had believed it. Of course, we don’t – the two-phase approach makes it impossible to even pretend to believe it, and it certainly doesn’t help that the fiendish mastermind is too blind to notice (or at least do anything about) the rather obvious double-agent he is employing. But at the end of the day, none of this really matters, because the movie’s only message is: even when Hunt meets his match, he still wins, because no one can match Cruise’s awesomeness!
Before I forget, let me mention that the plot mechanics are constructed around a MacGuffin that Hunt must steal from a super-duper high-security facility. There is an explanation for what this MacGuffin is and how it got into the facility, which makes a kind of movie sense at least; however, the MacGuffin actually turns out to be something completely different from what we were told (you need twists in this kind of spy thriller),. This raises a question the film never bothers to address: if the explanation of the MacGuffin’s identify was false, does the explanation for how it got into the facility make sense anymore?
I suppose one could dismiss all of this as mere pretext, the necessary plot elements to justify exciting set-piece, of which there are several. Unfortunately, the best one comes up front, with Cruise hanging off the side of a plane taking off from the runway. It’s a bold, can-we-top-this? gambit that overshadows the rest of the film; the following fight scenes, suspense scenes, and chase scenes (including a pretty nifty one on a motorcycle) are all good – but not that good.
With Cruise’s awesomeness blazing throughout the film, there is not much room for anyone else to shine. It’s nice to see Ving Rhames again, but I’ve already forgotten what if anything he contributed. Jeremy Renner cements his position as Hollywood’s top also-ran, treading water while waiting for the producers to spin him off into a Bourne-like sequel. Rebecca Ferguson is supposed to be amazing, but she’s just okay – good enough to play second fiddle, but no threat to the star. Alec Baldwin somehow manages to make his CIA prick fun to watch even before his change of heart (he’s basically Ralph Fiennes from SKYFALL).
In spite of my qualms I did find Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation reasonably diverting, and the ending even managed to build up a fair share of tension (though why I should have doubted that Cruise’s awesomeness would prevail, I don’t know). Maybe my expectations were too high. Its predecessor,  Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, supplied some actual thrills (for once, the danger seemed real rather than pretend), and I was expecting more of the same – an expectation seemingly confirmed by wildly enthusiastic reviews (93% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes).
Sadly, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation winds up seeming a bit like someone who tells you he’s funny instead of telling you a joke. The film insistently harps on Cruise’s awesomeness, without fully achieving awesomeness itself.
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (July 31, 2015). Directed by Christopher McQuarrie. Screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie, from a story by McQuarrie and Drew Pearce, based on the television series by Bruce Geller. With: Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Ving Rhames, Sean Harris, Simon McBurney, Jingchu Zhang, Tom Hollander, Jens Hulten, Alec Bladwin.  In IMAX 3D. PG-13. 131 mins.